CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR!
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY AUGUST 2nd 2009
John 6: 33 “The Bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world”.
“Careful what you wish for” is an old and well-known saying. It is illustrated very well in our first reading from Exodus 16: 2-15. During their 40 years in the wilderness, the Jews complained that they were hungry and reminded Moses they had plenty of bread to eat when they were slaves in Egypt. “Why did you bring us out to this place?” they said!
Now God has a sense of humor – so every evening the whole sky was covered with quails. I bet they were sick of those little birds after 40 years! And to answer them about all that bread they had in Egypt – each morning for breakfast he sent flakes of bread settling on the ground like frost. Everyday for 40 years!
Not quite the sort of bread they were expecting. In fact they called it “Manna” – which translates as “What is it?” It wasn’t exactly a loaf of bread. But they got what they wanted and wished for, didn’t they!
It’s a similar story in John chapter 6. Jesus had fed the crowd of 5,000 with bread by a miracle. But they were not satisified! Completely forgetting how boring and endless that Bread from Heaven was, that Manna in the wilderness, they said to Jesus: “Our fathers ate the Manna in the wilderness”, and quoted from Psalm 78: “He gave them Bread from Heaven to eat”.
This incident in John 6 is a continuation of Mark chapter 6. Jesus fed the 5,000; the crowd responds enthusiastically; Jesus retreats to a mountain; the disciples decide to take a boat over the lake to get away; Jesus joins them later by walking on the water.
Saint Mark then concludes by challenging the twelve – and us – to understand who Jesus is. To make us understand that he is the Divine Son of God, who is Lord of creation. Saint John doesn’t stop there. He continues from that whole series of incidents with what seems to be a debate between Jesus and the crowd.
Firstly, Jesus tells them bluntly they’re only interested in him because he fed them. Secondly, he challenges them to see the meaning of what he did. It wasn’t just to nourish them because the shops were closed.
He says: “Do not labor for food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life”. That, of course, is what he will give them – the food that endures to eternal life.
But their minds are still stuck on being fed. Remembering the Exodus experience of the Bread from Heaven, they ask him to do the same. “Our fathers ate Manna in the desert, will you do the same for us now?”. But without them realising it, Jesus has brought them from the practical reality of being fed, to a spiritual discernment. Already they are looking at Jesus in terms of what God did in the great Exodus through the wilderness.
But do they understand that Jesus had brought them to a spiritual experience when he fed them? It doesn’t seem so.
Jesus says: “The Bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world”.
It is not just to nourish people as they wander through the desert. The bread of God is really for the whole world. It comes down from heaven. Of course he is referring to himself.
I wonder if they recalled words he said on another occasion: “The Son of Man who came down from heaven”? For that is exactly what he is saying again. The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
But they still think in terms of bread. They plead: “Lord gives us this bread always”. They think it’s another gift, another miracle. So Jesus responds clearly and bluntly: “I am the Bread of Life”.
Where is this conversation and debate going? He now introduces the theme of Holy Communion: “He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst”. You notice the shift here? Until this moment we’ve been talking about bread and being fed; now Jesus talks about eating and drinking.
Christ is now establishing the relationship of himself come down from heaven – the Bread of Life – with the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Now in John 6 comes his wonderful teaching about Holy Communion, including:
+ “The Bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”
+ “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”
These can only be understood in the context of what we are doing today – the Holy Eucharist.
When we look at the whole of John 6, we see the spiritual reality of what we do here Sunday by Sunday. The Church understood the feeding of the 5,000 as a symbol and image of Holy Communion. Holy Communion is not itself a symbol, like the feeding of the 5,000 – but a reality which conveys to us what Jesus promises – his very life.
Just as we are fed with the sacramental bread and wine, so we are really fed with the life of Christ – what he mysteriously says is his flesh and blood.
Just like the 5,000 who were fed, we participate in a spiritual experience and reality through this simple act. Sometimes, like the crowd, perhaps the spiritual dimension can be lost on us. Maybe this story from John 6 is for us as well as the crowd?
When the crowd recalled the Manna in the desert, it wasn’t just that God gave them bread from heaven. There was a deeper meaning to that experience. The Manna from heaven was connected with the Passover, which preceded it. There would have been no escape through the Red Sea into the wilderness without first the Passover – by which they escaped from slavery.
The Passover was that sacrifice which saved them from slavery by the shedding of blood from the Sacrificial Lamb. That Passover was an image of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross – the Lamb of God who has saved us from slavery to sin, by the shedding of his blood.
The Passover was an image and prophecy of Calvary. The Manna that followed to sustain the people is an image and prophecy of the Eucharist, which follows Calvary.
That is why at the consecration in the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest does not use the words of Jesus like “I am the Bread of Life” or “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood…”. No, the priest repeats word for word what Jesus said at the Last Supper in the context of the Passover Meal: “This is my Body, which is given for you” and “This is my Blood of the New Covenant, which will be shed for you”.
Because the Manna in the desert was a symbol of the Eucharist, the Eucharist is bound up with the Passover which preceded it.
First of all the celebrant identifies the bread and wine with the Body which was given for us and the Blood which was shed for us. Only after this does he distribute the bread and wine to the congregation. This first action at the altar distinguishes the Eucharist from any other meal we participate in.
However, the Eucharist is not a sacramental act directed to the elements of bread and wine on the altar.
The Eucharist is actually a personal act of Christ directed towards us as individuals, So that when we receive this token of Christ’s life, this sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, it is the act of Christ himself to us personally – the one who meets at the altar rail.
In doing so, thus is fulfilled what Jesus says in Saint John 6: 35 – “I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” .
That is who we receive. Christ comes to us in this Sacrament.
This presence in Holy Communion depends on what precedes it – that is the priest taking and blessing, so that the bread is identified with the Body of Christ offered for us on the Cross. The act of Communion therefore presumes a change in the status of the elements.
Through the Eucharist Jesus makes himself known personally to his people, week by week, and day by day, as their personal Lord, Saviour, and Friend.
He who, through the Eucharist, “comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world”.